Women are half the world's population, yet hold less than one fifth of the positions of power in national governments. While it is certainly true that women today have made tremendous gains in reaching the highest rungs of leadership -- Brazil, Costa Rica, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia and Bangladesh are among the countries with female presidents -- overall the gains remain uneven. Furthermore, the contributions women have made toward achieving peace, prosperity, governance, and civil society in many parts of the globe too often go unrecognized; their inclusion in the political processes of their countries remains limited.
This week, coinciding with the Community of Democracies Ministerial in Vilnius, Lithuania, prominent female leaders representing government and civil society came together in a special conference to redress this imbalance and to commit to increasing support for women's participation in the public sphere. Co-chaired by President Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania and President Tarja Halonen of Finland, the "Women Enhancing Democracy: Best Practices" Conference underscores that women are central to building and sustaining democratic change everywhere. Representing the United States at the Community of Democracies Ministerial, Secretary Hillary Clinton also joined us at the women's conference, energizing the participants with her inspiring words of encouragement in support of women working in the struggle for democracy and human rights.
This timing of this conference is especially propitious given the essential role women are playing in the democratic movement sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa. Bringing together the women who experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago with women from Egypt, Tunisia, and across the Middle East who were on the frontlines of the Arab Spring, the conference illuminates the diverse yet instrumental ways women have been drivers of political, social and economic development. When women are empowered to fully participate in their country's political, economic and social spheres, and given the opportunity to work together, women can be force multipliers for democratic change, reform and economic growth. There is a mountain of data that positively correlates investment in women with a country's prosperity. Countries that fail to recognize the value of the female half of the population are short-changing their own development.
While there is much to be hopeful about, particularly given the enthusiasm and collective energy generated by the Vilnius gathering, we must remain vigilant. The horrific incidents of sexual violence being used to intimidate and punish protesters in the Middle East and North Africa, are a grim reminder that the rights of women are not fully protected and that many of the gains women have made are fragile at best. To address this collective concern, we also focused on the importance of strengthening women's social status and the need for greater leadership and accountability in tackling violence against women and human trafficking.
Noting that democracy and economic prosperity go hand in hand, we also discussed the importance of women's economic advancement. The United States has been at the forefront in developing programs supporting women entrepreneurs to increase their economic independence, employment and earning potential. It was very beneficial to exchange experiences with other women who are also making inroads in this crucial area of women's advancement.
The women I met during the conference are a source of inspiration and strength and a testament to the need for more women in leadership and decisionmaking positions at all levels of society. We also need to seek ways to make it easier and more rewarding for girls to also aspire to enter the field of politics so their voices, energy and ideas can sustain a future generation of female leaders. Women's active engagement in politics, civil society, and government decision-making are key ingredients to building democracy.
Democracy without women is a contradiction in terms. Investing in women's political participation and encouraging women to seek leadership positions is investing in a future where democracy will truly take root and the benefits of peace, progress and prosperity are most likely to flourish.
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